The rise of emojis: Could they replace language as we know it?

Close-up of a hands of a woman using emojis to chat. All screen graphics are made up.

This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)

A mere 20 years ago, cellular phones were scarce, and smartphones were science fiction. If we wanted to send written words to people, the only way we could do it was a beeper, a fax machine, or snail mail. Fast forward to today, and sending messages and documents is easy as pushing or tapping a few buttons.

When smartphones entered the market, then came the pressures to be online everywhere and all the time. These pressures mean that we need to communicate faster and more efficiently than ever before. No one has time to type, nor read long messages. So, hello, emojis!

Emojis, which started in Japan in the late 1990s, are not just allowing us to communicate faster, but they’re also allowing people to effectively communicate sentiment and show personality in their ever-shorter messages. It is not uncommon to see entire basic messages written in emojis. Think, for example, an “About Me” section in an app, similar to this:

There is some room for interpretation, but one might translate this as: “Hello, I do something with computers. I like to swim, listen to music, travel, and sleep.”

For some, especially linguists, the room for interpretation could become more worrisome, especially if emojis become even more widely used:

Ben Zimmer, executive editor of Vocabulary.com, says it’s the emoji’s ambiguous meaning that could lead to confusion because users can look at an emoji and take different things from it.

Here’s one example Zimmer provided: the emoji that illustrates two folded hands. According to Zimmer, this emoji started in Japan where the symbol represented salutation or gratitude. Other cultures interpret this emoji to symbolize prayer, while millennials often see this symbol belonging to two different people giving each other a high five.

It is ironic that thousands of year ago, early human beings used similar basic symbols to communicate. Their motives, of course, were different than ours. Time was abundant, but resources were scarce. Now, time is scarce and the resources are abundant. Either way, perhaps we are coming full circle.

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